How to Use Social Media for Crisis Communications and Emergency Management
Social media crisis communication for brands comes down to one reassuringly simple question: how can you help? The answer may be less simple.
On a regular day, connecting with your audience on social media requires tact, care, and forethought. In the epicentre of a major crisis, the pressure skyrockets. What should your brand say when the facts and the future are uncertain? And how should you say it when new developments are coming in by the hour, or minute?
Social media crisis communication for brands comes down to one reassuringly simple question: how can you help?
In this post we’re taking a look at social media best practices during a real-world crisis or emergency. That is, strategy and tactics for challenging times—earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, massacres, pandemics, economic collapse.
And for those of us operating farther from the crisis, social media is how people connect and make sense of tragedy. Brands can’t ignore these conversations, but participation must be approached with care.
So, when the world’s in a tailspin, what role does social media play in a crisis communications plan?
Rapid, direct communication of updates to your audience;
Support for people who need help or information;
Social listening to learn more broadly about what’s happening in the world and your industry, as well as what people need from your brand.
In short, social media isn’t just where you say you’re helping, but it’s also where you find out how you can help, and, in many cases, roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Whatever crisis we face—as both professionals and regular people—we all hope that after it passes, we’ll come out changed for the better. On social media, that means strengthening trust and connections with our audience for the long term.
What does that look like? Here are our tips.
10 tips for communicating on social media during a crisis or emergency
Review—and possibly pause—your upcoming social calendar
Have a social media policy in place
Know who’s on your “tiger” team
Make sure employees are aware of your organization’s position
Communicate with honesty, openness, and compassion
Cite only credible sources
Use social media listening and monitoring to stay informed
Avoid “trend-jacking” or activities that appear profit-driven
Leave room for questions
1. Review—and possibly pause—your upcoming social calendar
Context shifts rapidly in a crisis, and brands (especially ones who already worry about brand safety) are right to wonder if, for instance, “finger-lickin good” is an appropriate thing to be saying in the middle of a pandemic. At best, you might seem tone-deaf, at worst, inappropriate messaging could endanger lives.
If you’re using a social media scheduler, you’ll want to press pause on any upcoming posts. Have faith that all the hard work that went into your perfect National Donut Day post isn’t wasted, it’s just postponed.
This will keep all posts from being published until you decide it is safe to resume, and warn anyone who tries to schedule new content that a publishing suspension is in effect.
2. Have a social media policy in place
We can’t predict crises, but we can be prepared for them. Especially for bigger teams, your organization’s official social media policy is your best asset in responding as rapidly and effectively as possible. A good policy will provide a solid, but flexible, response process, as well as compile all the crucial internal information you need to move forward.
It’s also a helpful document to have in the case that some of your team members are affected by the crisis and compelled to share duties with non-team members.
Make sure your social media policy includes the following:
An up-to-date emergency contact list: not just your social media team, but legal advisors and executive decision-makers, too.
Guidance on accessing social account credentials (i.e., where that information is, and how to go about getting it, if need be.)
Guidelines for identifying the scope of the crisis (i.e., is it global or local, does it affect your operations, does it affect your customers, and to what extent?).
An internal communication plan for employees (see #4).
An approval process for your response strategy.
3. Know who’s on your “tiger” team
What’s a tiger team? A pack of ferocious specialists that assemble to work on a specific problem or goal. In this case, in the middle of an emergency or crisis, your existing social team might reconfigure, or call in additional firepower to handle the increased pressure.
Identify the people who are best suited for these roles, and delineate their responsibilities so that everyone can own their mission, and act. Tasks to assign include:
Answering questions and handling customer support
Monitoring the wider conversation, and flagging important developments
It’s also helpful to have people clearly responsible for:
Strategizing for the medium-term (not just day-to-day)
Coordinating/communicating with other teams, external stakeholders, and/or the rest of the organization
4. Make sure employees are aware of your organization’s position
Communications begin at home, and however your organization moves forward, you’re going to need your employees informed and on board.
For instance, if you’re announcing relief efforts, donations, or other moves for the greater good, then proud employees can help spread the word through an employee advocacy program. This is also a good time to remind them of your organization’s social media guidelines for employees (including any crisis-specific amendments).
On the other hand, if your brand is in a tense position because of the crisis (layoffs, backlash, etc.), or emotions are running high, be prepared for employees to turn to social to express themselves.
Why isn’t @Uber or @lyft doing more for drivers? #uberdriver#Lyft#lyftdriver Rides have gone down by 80% and we are taking all the risk of catching the virus by transforming passengers to their locations. They should double the rates especially now
Sometimes it’s impossible to get everyone pulling towards the same goal. In this case, social listening (see #7) can help you understand your employees’ concerns better. As well, your brand’s reaction in this scenario might be informed by your organization’s social media policy for employees.
Which leads us to our next point.
5. Communicate with honesty, openness, and compassion
This one is self-explanatory.
One of our favorite examples comes from Chiquita. This team obviously took the time to pause, re-orient and put in the work to fully integrate the #StayHome message into their social media plan during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the other side of the coin, the International Olympic Committee reposted a generic encouragement to self-isolate, even as they were under fire for resisting pressure to cancel the summer games in Tokyo. Naturally, people noticed the hypocrisy and left many negative comments on the post (which has since been deleted, but still exists as a retweet by @shibsibs).
Going further back, to the 2018 YouTube shooting, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey found the right balance between human emotion and professional, social accountability in his response.
At the end of the day, honesty, compassion and humanity will win out. The brands who build trust during hard times are the ones who are transparent about the issues they’re struggling with—or responsible for.
Bonus: Get a free, customizable social media policy template to quickly and easily create guidelines for your company and employees.
Resisting the spread of misinformation on social media has been a vital issue for platforms, government, and brands these past few years. But in a crisis, bad information doesn’t merely damage reputations, it can be outright dangerous.
While social platforms themselves may implement broader protective policies during a crisis, it’s absolutely necessary to have a fact-checking protocol in place before you share specious claims with your audience.
And if, in the heat of the moment, you erroneously share misinformation, own the mistake right away. Most likely your audience will tell you.
7. Use social media monitoring and listening to stay informed
Your social media team may well have been the first people in your organization to hear about the crisis, whether local or global. It’s just the nature of the job.
And if your social listening strategy is optimized, your team can continue to monitor audience sentiment around your brand, as well as track what’s happening with your competitors and industry at large. How are other, similar organizations responding to the emergency? And how are their customers responding to their response?
Do you need to craft content around your relief efforts, or new operational policies? Does your customer service team need to ramp up fast?
These are just a few of the questions social listening can help answer. It’s a direct line to what your audience needs from you, so tap in.
There are a number of social listening tools on the market that make it easy to track conversations, mentions, and search terms across different networks from a single dashboard. Hootsuite is one of those tools. The video below gives you an overview of the platform’s listening capabilities, if you’re interested.
8. Avoid “trend-jacking” or activities that appear profit-driven
Don’t attempt to “spin” a crisis.
Yes, it can be a tough line to pin down. Even legitimate moves towards altruism, if they seem showy or calculated, will leave a bad taste in the collective mouth, and damage your relationship with your customers.
For instance, when Blackbird—a boutique perfume and incense company that is typically mysterious, hip and edgy in their communications—hinted that they’d be selling not only fancy hand sanitizer, but face masks, they received such an immediate, outraged response that they had to post a clarification half an hour later attempting to explain their good intentions. (They weren’t going to sell the masks, but donate them to hospitals all along.)
The lesson? Coy teaser strategies don’t work in an emergency situation. Communicate clearly and directly so that you don’t end up muddying the waters.
Meanwhile, this PR firm’s post reads as a strange and unappreciated brag regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
In conclusion: avoid damaging your brand’s reputation on social media in tough times by doing what’s right and doing it humbly. And keep your shirt on.
More best practices for effective crisis management with social media
The video below offers additional tips and goes into more detail for effectively using social media during a time of crisis.
9. Leave room for questions
People will have questions. Be clear on the best way for them to reach you. Even if you’re not faced with a deluge of panicked customer service inquiries, take the time to engage with your audience, answer their questions, and provide reassurance.
For instance, Clorox’s coronavirus customer response team was on the ball during the coronavirus pandemic, dispensing clear, accurate answers where they could.
Meanwhile, Ticketmaster’s customer service strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic—best described as “talk to the hand”—left outraged customers to grouse among themselves about the lack of refunds for cancelled events.
For their part, pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart was accused of raising prices on toilet paper and hand sanitizer around the first wave of COVID-19 panic shopping. The brand’s customer service team addressed the concerns directly, while an official response was formulated.
Hi Helder, Could you please send us a DM with the UPC/Barcode number of the toilet paper? We will look into this for you!
PS: Read Hootsuite’s Social Intelligence Briefing for the latest data on how COVID-19 has impacted customer engagement on social—and how organizations are adapting their strategies to retain customer relationships.
10. Don’t disappear
Yes, we started this list by saying a pause may be necessary while you strategize, but—and this goes triple if your brand is close to the crisis—radio silence is not a long-term strategy.
While PopTarts knew their input wasn’t necessary during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the same strategy from an airline company would be unthinkable.
And yet it happens: during the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in 2010, BP learned the hard way that an inadequate social strategy opens up gaps for someone else (or everyone else) to tell your story for you.
Since BP caused the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this example is both a PR crisis and a real-world disaster. But the company’s lack of preparedness for online communication left the door open for a satirical Twitter account mocking their efforts that attracted 175,000 followers. (BP’s official account had 15,000, at the time).
In hard times, we all need to take responsibility for what we can. Brands included.
Social media crisis communications examples
And now, to inspire you, we’ve collected some of our favorite examples of how brands have dealt with crisis and emergencies on social media. Because of the timing of this article, many of them are COVID-19 related (check out Twitter’s round up of COVID-19 responses from brands for more inspiration).
This infographic encouraging app users to think strategically about the super-emotional topic of money during a shocking downturn is A++. Not only does it fulfill a genuine informational need, it shows a lot of empathy for what people are feeling and thinking.
Free offerings from online companies skyrocketed in the self-isolation “housebound economy.” What we like here is how this meditation app took the opportunity to get even closer to its audience: going from prerecorded audio to daily livestreaming.
And yes, it’s also a stealth conversion tool. But only because the offerings are truly valuable.
Osmosis is an online health professional education company that leveraged its in-house content resources to help lead the informational charge on COVID-19. Their multi-pronged content strategy is truly inspiring: helping medical schools transition to distance learning; helping people stuck at home stay healthy; and providing all sorts of shareable educational content that could genuinely help lessen the load on the medical system.
While hospitals, universities, and public health organizations may not have the resources to commit to a full-scale social effort like this, the good news is that it’s right there for re-posting.
This condom company elected to shamelessly advertise through a pandemic. They even came up with their own branded hashtag. But you know what? It’s a condom company, it pretty much has to be shameless. So it works.
WHO, unsurprisingly, has been super active through COVID-19: livetweeting expert panels, reposting reliable (or even entertaining) content, and generally being both authoritative and consistent.
What’s more surprising is that their social team, unlike almost everyone else in late March 2020, wasn’t exclusively dealing in pandemic content. They also continued their work on tuberculosis, the Health For All film festival, and other topics. This kind of moderation makes sense for health and government organizations whose day-to-day involves life and death.
All of these examples, though from vastly different industries, communicate with their social media audiences tactfully and efficiently during a crisis. Remember, the most important question to ask yourself is still: how can you help?
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